San Francisco 49ers re-sign WR Anquan Boldin

Anquan Boldin should be on the decline. Even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Anquan Boldin is now going into his age 34 season and is “only” 29th all-time in receiving yardage.

Instead, Boldin is coming off of his best season in terms of receiving yardage (1173) since 2006. And it wasn’t just the receiver-needy 49ers forcing him the ball every play. Boldin caught 69.1% of his targets, averaged 2.55 yards per route run (5th in the NFL), dropped just 6 passes, broke 13 tackles, averaged 5.2 yards after catch per catch, and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked wide receiver, including 3rd ranked in terms of pure pass catching grade. Colin Kaepernick had a 118.6 QB rating when throwing to him, which was 6th in the NFL.

It’s uncommon for a receiver to have that kind of season at age 33, but you have to remember what kind of receiver Anquan Boldin is. He’s never been a great athlete, relying on superb hands and body control, as well as physicality and ability to shake tackles after the catch. He isn’t someone who gets a lot of separation, but he’s almost always open even when he’s not. That type of receiver can survive into his mid-30s in ways that receivers more dependent on athleticism in the prime of their careers can’t. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him continue to produce in 2014 and 2015.

This was a very good move for the receiver-needy 49ers to lock up Anquan Boldin on this short-term deal. Boldin will make 12 million over 2 years maximum and the 49ers could get out of it after 1-year and 6 million dollars guaranteed if they chose to do so. Most likely, they’ll keep him on into 2015 because he’ll continue to prove to be an asset in the passing game in 2014 opposite Michael Crabtree. This deal is very similar to the one the Broncos gave Wes Welker in a similar stage in his career last off-season and I think it makes a lot of sense.

Grade: A

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Denver Broncos sign WR Emmanuel Sanders

The Broncos needed a cheap replacement for Eric Decker and Emmanuel Sanders will see a boost in production by moving to the Broncos’ passing offense, but he’s really “just a guy” at the wide receiver position so 5 million annually is a little much for him (6 million over 1 season is guaranteed). They could have found a cheaper #3 receiver. In 2 years as a key contributor for the Steelers in 2012 and 2013, including a starting role in 2013, Sanders graded out very middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus, grading out 57th and 60th respectively among wide receivers, while averaging 1.48 and 1.34 yards per route run. He’s an upgrade over Andre Caldwell as the 3rd receiver in Denver after Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker, but this is an overpay.

Grade: C

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Detroit Lions sign WR Golden Tate

Golden Tate has never had a 1000 yard season, but there’s an argument to be made that he’s a better wide receiver than Eric Decker. His numbers have been kept down by a run heavy offense, but he’s averaged 1.80 and 2.01 yards per route run in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Compare that to 1.80 and 2.03 for Eric Decker and they’re much more comparable than you think. Golden Tate also had a better 2011 season, when he was a 2nd year receiver with problems at the quarterback position, than Decker did in 2011, when he also was a 2nd year receiver with problems at the quarterback position. Golden Tate averaged 1.33 yards per route run, as opposed to 1.28 yards per route run for Decker.

Now take into account that Eric Decker has 29 drops compared to 216 catches (1 drop every 7.45 catches), while Golden Tate has 5 drops compared to 144 catches (1 drop every 28.8 catches) and that, as good as Russell Wilson is, Golden Tate was playing with the inferior passing quarterback between the two. Eric Decker got 36.25 million over 5 years (with 15 million over 2 years guaranteed), while Golden Tate got 31 million over 5 years (with 13.25 million over 2 years guaranteed), which is more reasonable.

Tate moves from one of the run heaviest offenses in the NFL to one of the pass heaviest in Detroit and Matt Stafford isn’t really a downgrade from Russell Wilson as a pure passing quarterback. He’ll have an opportunity to run 600 pass routes opposite Calvin Johnson, see single coverage with regularity, and get his first 1000 yard season. The pass heavy Lions were incredibly thin at wide receiver after Calvin Johnson and were able to upgrade their passing attack tremendously with this move. It’s a reasonable value and a good use of the Lions’ limited cap space.

Grade: A-

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New York Jets sign WR Eric Decker

Eric Decker is going to get a massive downgrade at the quarterback position going from Peyton Manning to Michael Vick/Geno Smith. The last time he played with a quarterback other than Peyton Manning, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 82nd ranked wide receiver out of 115 eligible and averaged just 1.28 yards per route run, 65th out of 95 eligible. That was in 2011 with the combination of Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton, which is comparable to what Decker will be dealing with in New York.

That being said, it’s unfair to suggest that he’ll just go back to his 2011 level of production, when he caught 44 passes for 612 yards and 8 touchdowns. While much of his increased production since then is due to the arrival of Peyton Manning, he’s still an improved player over when he was in his 2nd year in the league in 2011, after being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. He’s averaged 1.80 and 2.03 yards per route run over the past 2 seasons, grading out 36th and 11th in those two seasons respectively among wide receivers, peaking in his contract year.

He’s not a true coverage changing #1 receiver, he’s not overly explosive, and he drops too many passes (29 drops compared to 216 catches over the past 3 seasons). However, he is going to be easily the Jets’ best wide receiver this season, he’s the difference maker the Jets needed downfield, and he’s incredibly reliable around the goal line (32 touchdowns in the last 3 seasons, including 8 even in 2011).

After averaging 86 catches for 1176 yards and 11 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons, Decker will probably have between 60-70 catches for 800-900 yards and 6-8 touchdowns next season, which is a significant upgrade over anything the Jets had from the wide receiver position last year. He’ll get 36.25 million over 5 years, including 15 million over 2 seasons guaranteed. His 7.25 million dollar average annual salary is 17th in the NFL, which is a slight overpay. However, it’s not a bad move for the wide receiver needy Jets.

Grade: B-

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New York Giants sign DE Robert Ayers

Robert Ayers was a bust as the 18th overall pick in 2009 because he never developed beyond being a solid rotational player, but he’s still a solid rotational player and a good pickup here for a Giants team that had big needs on the defensive line following some off-season losses. He had his best season in his contract year in 2013, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 4-3 defensive end, excelling against the run, where he ranked 9th at his position. He only played 514 snaps, but it was still an impressive season from him.

At 6-3 275, he’s a better run stuffer than pass rusher, but he also has the ability to move inside and play some defensive tackle in sub packages as sort of a Justin Tuck-lite for the Giants. He also is younger and comes much cheaper. He’ll probably play about 400-600 snaps and compete for snaps with Jason Pierre-Paul, Mathias Kiwanuka, Damontre Moore, and potentially a rookie. At 3.75 million over 2 years, with just 1.75 million over 1 year guaranteed, it’s a solid addition for the Giants.

Grade: A-

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Detroit Lions re-sign C Dominic Raiola

Dominic Raiola is aging, going into his age 36 season, and he looked done as recently as 2010-2011, when he graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in both seasons, including 5th worst among centers in 2010. However, he’s put together back-to-back strong seasons on an overall strong Detroit offensive line over the past two seasons, grading out 13th and 2nd among centers in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

At his age, he doesn’t have much time left, but he could easily have another strong season left in the tank, so credit the Lions for keeping him at a very reasonable rate (1.5 million over 1 season) and ensuring that center not become a pressing need heading into the draft. They can now focus on other positions early and look for a developmental successor for Raiola in the mid to late rounds. This was a smart move for the Lions.

Grade: A

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Washington Redskins sign S Ryan Clark

The Redskins desperately needed safety help and secondary help in general. Brandon Meriweather was their best safety last year, but he’s a below average starter, while 2013 4th and 6th round picks Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo didn’t show anything as rookies last season. Thomas missed the entire season with injury, while Rambo graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 79th ranked safety out of 86 eligible on just 340 snaps.

Ryan Clark was still a solid starter last season, grading out middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus, but he was a far cry from his 2008-2012 form, a stretch in which he finished in the top-25 among safety on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons and maxed out at 9th in 2012. Considering his age, as he’s going into his age 35 season, that’s very understandable and it’s probably not going to get any better. However, on a deal worth nearly the veteran’s minimum (about 1.02 million over 1 year) with just a 65K signing bonus guaranteed, this is a cheap pickup that could help this football team if Clark proves he has another decent year in the tank.

Grade: A

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New Orleans Saints sign CB Champ Bailey

The common narrative is that Champ Bailey is done, after he struggled through just 333 snaps (193 regular season, 140 post-season) last season thanks to injury and with him going into his age 36 season. However, he had a great 2012 season, at least in the regular season, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback and he has such an impressive history that it wouldn’t shock me if he had one more season in the tank provided he can stay healthy. He showed enough in the post-season last year to suggest that’s a decent possibility.

The Saints are risking very little with this deal. There’s only a 500K signing bonus and that’s all that’s guaranteed. He can earn another million dollars if he makes the final 53 man roster and another 250K if he plays at least 6 games this season. He can make up to 6.75 million over 2 seasons through incentives, but the total money on this deal is just 3.75 million over 2 seasons. They needed another cornerback after cutting Jabari Greer. Ideally, Champ Bailey would be one of the Saints’ top 3 cornerbacks this season with Keenan Lewis and Corey White, though they’ll probably add another cornerback through the draft, probably in the first couple of rounds. It’s a low risk deal that could pay off.

Grade: A-

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New York Jets sign RB Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson hasn’t been the same player since 2009, his 2000 yard season, though few people are able to repeat that kind of season. He was still an above average starting running back and an incredibly durable one at that, not missing a game since his rookie year in 2008 and totaling over 250 carries in all 6 of his professional seasons. However, last year he significantly declined in efficiency, averaging just 3.9 yards per carry, including just 1.8 yards per carry after contact and ranked 3rd worst in the NFL in elusive rating. He was Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked running back out of 55 eligible. That’s why the Titans cut him, instead of paying him a large salary.

He still was the highest paid running back on the open market this off-season, getting 4 million dollars yearly in this deal, while the 2nd highest paid running back got 3.5 million dollars yearly. This deal is worth a total of 8 million dollars (with an extra million dollars available through incentive) with 4 million over 1 year guaranteed (3 million dollars signing bonus and 1 million dollars base salary). I don’t think he’s quite worth that much money.

He should become more efficient this season as he’ll see a smaller workload, splitting carries with power back Chris Ivory (probably in the neighborhood of 180-220 carries). He could also be healthier after dealing with significant knee problems all last season. However, he’s also going into his age 29 season with 2014 career touches so he’s not getting any better any time soon. Injury problems could become commonplace for him and there’s already some concern about a potentially arthritic knee. He’s on the decline and this is an overpay.

Grade: C+

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Chicago Bears sign C Brian De La Puente

This is one of the biggest bargains of free agency. Brian De La Puente has been a starter in New Orleans for 3 years since Jonathan Goodwin left following the 2010 season. In those 3 seasons, De La Puente has been an above average starting center, grading out 12th, 2nd, and 16th among centers on Pro Football Focus in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. He’s also only going into his age 29 season. Despite that, the Bears are getting him for a dollar over the league minimum (which gives them to option to give him an extension at any time one can be agreed to). I have a hard time believing the Saints didn’t want to bring him back at this price.

The Bears don’t necessarily need a center because Roberto Garza is coming off of a solid season, but Garza has been inconsistent in the past, is going into his age 35 season, and has a salary that is fairly inexpensive. De La Puente also has an inexpensive salary so the Bears essentially have two starting centers for the price of one with the ability to use De La Puente to compete with Garza or to use Garza, a former guard, as an interior line reserve and 6th offensive lineman. De La Puente also reunites with talented and well respected Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, who he worked with in New Orleans when he was the offensive line coach from 2009-2012. It’s a great move.

Grade: A

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